NASSR Graduate Student Caucus Resources for Graduate Students of Romanticism Fri, 08 Dec 2017 23:56:39 +0000 en-US hourly 1 118134998 What Happened To Dread in the Nineteenth Century? Fri, 08 Dec 2017 23:56:39 +0000 Continue reading What Happened To Dread in the Nineteenth Century? ]]> Although we normally discuss terror, horror, and the sublime in relation to early Gothic literature, I’d like to call our attention to another similar, but significantly distinguishable affect: dread. Dread is unique because of its future orientation, something we don’t normally talk about with the past-dominated Gothic. However, I’d like to present two readings of dread, in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and MG Lewis’s The Monk (1796) to demonstrate how integral this expectant affect is to the genre.     

The Castle of Otranto opens with speculations by the peasants regarding “the Prince’s dread of seeing accomplished an ancient prophecy, which was said to have pronounced, That the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it.1 Various body parts and accoutrements of a gigantic statue proceed to plague Manfred and his castle for the rest of the novella. Importantly, “dread” is the affect repeatedly attributed to Manfred as a result of this prophecy and its spectral manifestations. For instance, in the opening scene Manfred searches for his missing son Conrad and enters the court “dreading he knew not what” to find servants struggling to raise an enormous helmet from his macerated heir.2 There is thus an immediate correlation between the affect of dread and the presence of the giant statue, whose presence symbolizes illegitimacy and prophecies the demise of Manfred’s lordship of Otranto.

To dread is not simply to fear, but rather, “to look forward to with terror or anxiety.”3 Dread is therefore a state of fear that only arises when one’s thoughts are oriented towards the future. It is not the future event itself that evokes fear, however. Recall how Manfred enters the court “dreading he knew not what.” He is not yet aware that there exists a giant statue that has squashed his son, and that he will soon lose the castle of Otranto. Manfred experiences anxiety simply by contemplating an unknown future: Where is his son? What has happened to him? The acuity of Manfred’s dread sharpens as the future becomes clearer. The appearance of the prophesied statue guarantees a future in which he loses the lordship of Otranto. It is apprehension of this future loss, the affect of dread, that makes Manfred a brutal despot, for the narrator mentions early on, “Manfred was not one of those savage tyrants who wanton in cruelty unprovoked. The circumstances of his fortune had given an asperity to his temper, which was naturally humane…”4 In short, dread provokes Manfred’s cruelty toward the other characters, and his acts of despotism comprise the bulk of the plot. Thus, the affect of dread is not only crucial to the atmosphere of the story, but motivates its narrative.

Thus far I have defined dread as a state of fear felt in contemplation of a concrete (prophesied) or abstract (ambiguously contemplated) future. What I’ve been hinting at, and would now like to make clear, is that this future, regardless of how concrete or abstract it is, must be perceived as an inevitable one by the affected subject in order to elicit dread. For this reason, Otranto opens with a prophecy and ends with its fulfillment, which occurs in spite of Manfred’s frenzied attempts to resist it.

Similarly, an initial scene in The Monk presents a dramatic prophecy-like curse. When Ambrosio denies the pregnant nun Agnes mercy, she anathematizes: “But the day of trial will arrive. Oh! then, when you yield to impetuous passions; when you feel that man is weak, and born to err; when, shuddering, you look back upon your crimes, and solicit with terror the mercy of your God, oh! –in that fearful moment, think upon me! Think upon your cruelty! Think upon Agnes–and despair of pardon!”5 Thus far, Ambrosio has demonstrated remarkable piety and is revered by religious and common folk alike. It is after Agnes’s curse that the monk falls progressively deeper into depravity: admitting his attraction to the novice Rosario, indulging in carnal delights with the novice when he proves to be a woman named Matilda, slighting Matilda when he becomes attracted to the innocent Antonia, and ultimately planning the abduction and rape of Antonia that results in his murdering her mother. I do not mean to suggest that there is a causal relationship between Agnes’s malediction and Ambrosio’s iniquity, for she is no sorceress. Rather, the importance of her curse is that it establishes a future-orientation from the outset of the novel. Agnes alerts Ambrosio and the assumed Christian reader to the inevitability of Judgement Day, and evokes dread of God’s reckoning.

The Monk thus participates in what Paul Megna identifies as a “Judeo-­Christian tradition of dread­-based asceticism” that is “built around the ethical goal of living better through dread.”6 Megna references a long history of Middle English sermons, confession manuals, allegorical poems, dramas, and polemics to demonstrate the ubiquity of dread-­based emo­tional communities in medieval England. In these texts, dread frequently aligns with spiritual ideals like obedience and wisdom and serves to initiate salvation. Megna traces this tradition of dread-based devotion from the Middle Ages to the existential theories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, particularly focusing on Søren Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety (1844), which was originally translated as The Concept of Dread. Kierkegaard distinguishes fear from anxiety based on the definiteness of the object. Fear has a definite object; for example, when standing on the edge of a cliff, a person is afraid of falling and dying painfully. Anxiety, on the other hand, “is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility.”7 Simply put, anxiety, or dread, results when a person realizes her future can change depending on how she exerts her free will.

The Monk, published in 1796 but representing an imagined medieval Spain, exists at a transitional moment in Megna’s history of dread-based asceticism, bridging medieval religious doctrines and modern existentialism. Ambrosio’s dread amphibiously dips into both paradigms, while failing to correspond entirely to either, thus resulting in his demise. Megna elucidates how medieval preachers did not simply frighten the laity with fire and brimstone, but rather proscribed elaborate programs to distinguish between and transcend lower forms of dread (like dread of suffering) to the highest form of morally perfect dread: child-like dread of God out of reverent love. The point of experiencing dread in any case is to cultivate a moral life free from sin. The effectiveness of dread in thwarting sin is apparent in The Monk, when Ambrosio “no longer reflected with shame upon his incontinence, or dreaded the vengeance of offended heaven. His only fear was lest Death should rob him of enjoyments, for which his long Fast had only given a keener edge to his appetite.”8 Consequently, he “rioted in delights till then unknown to him: Swift fled the night, and the Morning blushed to behold him still clasped in the embraces of Matilda.”9 Suddenly devoid of dread, the once chaste monk is transformed into a nymphomaniac. However, at the end of the novel when he is in the dungeons of the Inquisition, Ambrosio’s dread returns in full force. He “believed himself doomed to perdition,” and thus signs his soul over to Satan, for he is convinced “by refusing the demon’s succor, He only hastened tortures which He never could escape.”10 In his final moments of reflection before signing the fatal contract, “With affright did he bend his mind’s eye on the space beyond the grave; nor could hide from himself how justly he ought to dread Heaven’s vengeance.”11 Ultimately, then, in a dramatic reversal of medieval religious doctrine, Ambrosio’s extreme dread of God’s judgment does not lead to reform and salvation, but the selling of his soul and damnation.

Although Ambrosio perceives his future perdition as unavoidable, the novel ends with the proposition that another future was possible: “Had you resisted me one minute longer,” says Satan, “you had saved your body and soul. The guards whom you heard at your prison-door came to signify your pardon.”12 Lewis, ever the master of irony, thus playfully invites the reader to imagine an alternative ending moments before having his wretched villain pulverized in a gorge and sent to eternal damnation. This moment of imagination prefigures Kierkegaard’s existential crisis as expressed in Concepts. Ambrosio was not, in fact, “doomed to perdition” as he believed. Agnes’s curse was not a binding supernatural malediction; it did not eliminate his free will. Ambrosio could have chosen to not sign the contract. However, because he perceived his future damnation as inevitable, his dread mounted to such a pitch that he could not imagine an alternative future where he was saved. The result is a twofold religious and existential tragedy: Ambrosio fails to transcend from dread to love of God (thus having faith in God’s forgiveness and salvation) and simultaneously fails to recognize his power of free will. Ambrosio is in fact devoid of anxiety as Kierkegaard sees it, for he fails to see “the possibility of possibility.”13 Ambrosio’s failure, I argue, is the product of a Gothically perceived future; that is, a future that is fixed and inevitable. The distinctly Gothic future, I would like to propose, is one that cannot be altered by free will.

These readings are a long way of getting to the question that motivated this article: What happened to dread in the nineteenth century? From the Middle Ages to the Romantic period, dread was a solemn affective posture of profound significance in theology, philosophy, and literature.

But, dread does not retain its serious, ecclesiastical denotation in nineteenth century literature. On the contrary, it becomes a frivolous and popular term, as indicated by the “penny dreadful” phenomenon. These cheap magazines with famously lurid covers and illustrations were purchased primarily by working class boys and related melodramatic crime stories like The String of Pearls; Or, Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet-Street (1847-49). At best, Victorian critics deemed the stories “exceedingly foolish and frivolous,”14 which prompted readers “to escape from thought.”15 At worst, penny dreadfuls were supposed to precipitate crime: “Find me the boy who murders his mother or steals his father’s watch, and I will find you the Penny Dreadful.”16 The dreadfulness of these tales, therefore, was historically attributed to their inferior prose style and their unethical utility.

Simultaneously, a number of comics appearing in Judy, Or the London Serio-Comic Journal depicted supposedly dreadful, but actually ridiculous, scenarios. For example, an 1872 cartoon titled “A Dreadful Thing to Happen” amusingly portrays a betrothed couple swimming in the sea at the same time, the man mistaking another man for his fiancée in the water, then both man and woman exiting the sea in such a rush that they enter each others’ bathing-machines and don each others’ clothes, after which they are both arrested by the police. This is, apparently, “a dreadful thing to happen.”

I am in earnest to explain this drastic evacuation of dread’s solemn significance! The Romantic period seems to be the tipping point, so I’m calling on my NASSR fellows for assistance:

What Romantic text (or image) best depicts dread?

Do you know any examples of silly dread in the Romantic period?

Sarah Kareem at UCLA has pointed out to me that awe/awful undergoes a similar transformation. Can you think of any similar examples?   

Other thoughts about this emptying of dread are very much appreciated! 

[1] Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (Oxford UP, 1996), 17.

[2] Walpole, 19.

[3] “dread, v.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2017, Accessed 8 December 2017.

[4] Walpole, 33.

[5] Matthew Lewis, The Monk (Oxford UP, 2016), 39.

[6] Paul Megna, “Better Living through Dread: Medieval Ascetics, Modern Philosophers, and the Long History of Existential Anxiety,” PMLA 2015, 130.5, 1286.

[7] Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, trans. Alastair Hannah (W.W. Norton & Co., 2014), 42.

[8] Lewis, 173.

[9] Lewis, 173.

[10] Lewis, 333.

[11] Lewis, 326.

[12] Lewis, 338.

[13] Kierkegaard, 42.

[14] Francis Hitchman, “The Penny Press,” Macmillan’s Magazine, March 1881, 398.

[15] Hitchman, 385.

[16] Anonymous, “A Penny-Dreadful Scare,” The National Observer, 28 September 1895, 546.

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The Gothic in the Balkans: Does it Really Exist? Sat, 02 Dec 2017 17:35:44 +0000 Continue reading The Gothic in the Balkans: Does it Really Exist? ]]> …or is it simply a by-product of the Western influence?

I’ve been googling the term Gothic romance in the Balkans, and in certain Balkan countries, apart from getting the search results connected to the Gothic genre and how it came into existence, not much information appeared,  specific to that part of the world, in literature, film or any other medium. I did, however, find articles and news reports of the Gothic as a lifestyle, fashion statement and part of the music genre, a “movement” that I belong to as well, but that is a story for a different post. In this post, I would like to focus more on the Gothic genre or the lack of its presence, other than the historical one, on the Balkan territory.

“Travelers, writers, even early anthropologists, visited the Balkans and then put their experiences into paper, to be shared with the rest of the European public. These early accounts of the Balkans have contributed in shaping the public’s opinion as to the perception of the unity of the Balkans as a whole and as to what is the Balkan Identity. Some of the stereotypes that surround the term Balkan are evident in these early works and, of course, are, even subconsciously so, compared with the western European perceptions of what is civilized. As a result the Balkan is presented as an ‘other’…”[1]

The result of this presence of writers from other countries in the world was the creation of some of the most popular fiction works that we study and analyse today, hence we have:

“…Lord Byron’s romantic poems about Greece, ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’ by Anthony Hope, Agatha Christie’s ‘The Secret of Chimneys’, Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ and the romantic gothic novel ‘Carmilla’ by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, one of the first novels to launch the ’vampire’ in literature.”[2]

All of them wrote about the landscape and the way of life in this strange, unknown and mysterious part of the world, but they didn’t use the real names of the places they were using as templates for their work, simply and possibly because they didn’t “sound rather genuinely ‘Balkan’.”[3] However, the most famous piece of fiction to date that explores the otherness of the Balkans is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a beloved novel that changed everything in Gothic fiction.

I will not dwell on the subject of the novel, or the Balkan-ism of the same, instead I will try and connect some certain motifs with another work of fiction but in a different medium, a film by Dorde Kadijevic called Devicanska Svirka (A Maiden’s Song, A Song of Virgins, 1973).

During my research, what struck me as familiar while watching this unique film, and very atypical for the area and the time when it was filmed (during Yugoslavia’s existence, and on the brink of the so called Black Wave in Serbia, a movement that gave the artists, the filmmakers the opportunity to express themselves freely, without the shackles of the partisan propaganda at the time). Devicanska svirka follows a young man, Ivan (Goran Sultanovic), who ends up in the middle of nowhere in the rural setting of Serbia, and can’t get back to the city, the “civilisation”. Instead, he finds that a haunting melody that he hears comes from a nearby house on the hill, which is said to be haunted, according to the villagers. He meets the mistress of the house, beautiful and mysterious Sibila (Olivera Katarina), who lures him inside the house, from where Ivan, it seems, can’t get out of anymore, no matter how hard he tried. The first scenes of our protagonist travelling in the coach through the ominous rural landscape delightfully reminds of Jonathan Harker’s travel to the Dracula castle, the communication with the villagers who have the fear of the house itself and what dwells inside. The overall ominousness of the house is presented during daytime, which makes it even scarier, and more real. These, and other elements presented in an ingenious style of filming by Kadijevic, who is one of the most successful directors in Serbia, explore the Gothic in the Balkan setting, the uncivilised part of the world to many of the writers and filmmakers that sends chilling shivers down our spines with the idea of horror and terror and the unfamiliarity of the landscapes that are yet to be discovered by the rest of the world. Whether or not the Gothic as a genre existed at the time in this area, or whether it was a by-product of Western, more popular influences, its presence certainly cannot be ignored or denied. Nevertheless, is it here to stay, in the more contemporary setting, or was this only a one off occasion of the Gothic penetrating into the consciousness of the Balkan audiences?

Stay tuned for my next post to find out more!



[1] Tortomani, K. A Balkan Gothic: Bram Stoker’s ‘Drakula’ and the Balkan Identity, Balkan Studies 49 (2014), p.36-37.

[2] [2] Tortomani, K. A Balkan Gothic: Bram Stoker’s ‘Drakula’ and the Balkan Identity, Balkan Studies 49 (2014), p.37.

[3] [3] Tortomani, K. A Balkan Gothic: Bram Stoker’s ‘Drakula’ and the Balkan Identity, Balkan Studies 49 (2014), p.37.



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Interview with Dr. Nikki Hessell, Co-Winner of the 2017 NASSR/Romantic Circles Pedagogy Contest Thu, 30 Nov 2017 21:48:17 +0000 Continue reading Interview with Dr. Nikki Hessell, Co-Winner of the 2017 NASSR/Romantic Circles Pedagogy Contest ]]> Dr. Nikki Hessell is a co-winner of this year’s NASSR/Romantic Circles Pedagogy Contest, as announced at NASSR 2017 in Ottawa. Nikki is a Senior Lecturer in the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies at the Victoria University of Wellington. She’s been kind enough to tell us about her submission and share some tips for graduate students on teaching Romanticism.

Caroline Winter: Hello, Nikki. Thank you for sharing your insights with us for the NGSC blog, and congratulations on your award! Could you tell us about your submission?

Nikki Hessell: Thanks Caroline, and thanks again to the organisers of the NASSR/Romantic Circles Pedagogy Contest. My submission was for a fourth-year course on Romanticism and Indigeneity. The course starts with some thinking and reading about the literary forms that already existed in countries like mine (Aotearoa New Zealand), throughout Te Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa (the Pacific Ocean), and across Turtle Island (the US and Canada). It then thinks about how the British Romantic authors responded to those traditions and the people making those works, and how indigenous authors in those places in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries responded to the Romantic literature they encountered through forced or voluntary experiences in colonial education systems.

Caroline: That sounds amazing! What motivated you to develop this particular course?

Nikki: That’s a big question with lots of sides to it. I could talk about this for a long time, but I’ll try to give a short summary.

  1. I’d like to see more indigenous students studying English literature, but there’s no point just saying that, even sincerely, and then sitting back and waiting for it to happen. What is our field doing to make studying literature (Romantic literature especially) as interesting and relevant as, say, studying law, or health sciences, or education, or history?
  2. Romantic studies is well-equipped to make a contribution, since our period overlaps with a the era of imperial expansion and because the literature itself is so engaged with indigeneity. But we need to talk about colonisation from within colonised cultures, not simply as something the British did.
  3. Like most Pākehā (white settler) scholars and teachers, I’ve had to think long and hard about my role here, especially in terms of appropriation. But I’ve come to believe that it is better to use my expertise and my position to create conditions for a new generation of scholars to replace me. The only way to find those scholars is to be willing to train them. And the political situation in Aotearoa means there is considerably more enthusiasm and understanding in an institution like mine than in other parts of the colonised world, so I thought it might be useful to NASSR if I took a leadership role in this area of our field.

Caroline: How does this course fit into your larger research project or areas of interest?

Nikki: My main area of research interest is the intersection of Romanticism and indigeneity, so this is a perfect fit! As my answer above probably indicates, it’s taken me a while to think through the ethical and pedagogical issues of such a course. But working on my forthcoming book (Romantic Literature and the Colonised World: Lessons from Indigenous Translations, Palgrave 2018) has given me years to consider the ways in which Romanticism and indigenous epistemologies interacted from the Romantic period onwards, and also to develop my own skills to be a useful teacher in this area. I’m at work on a new project that will influence the course as well.

Caroline: How did students respond to the course? What was it like to teach it?

Nikki: That remains to be seen! I developed it just in time for the NASSR 2017 conference, and it will be offered in the next cycle of fourth year courses at my institution. But I have taught parts of the course in other contexts already, as I’ve been developing them, and the response has been very positive. One student told me that they felt like the understood modern New Zealand better for understanding the connections between Romanticism and colonial experience, and that was part of what I was hoping students would see. I’m particularly looking forward to taking students to the marae (meeting house) for some of our class time.

Caroline: Please send us an update; I’d love to know how it goes. What advice do you have for graduate students who are developing their own Romanticism courses?

Nikki: Remember that developing as a teacher is a lifelong experience: you don’t have to solve all of the challenges of Romantic pedagogy today. There’s real value in being able to teach what we might think of as a standard Romantic literature course, and there are almost always opportunities within that course for discussion of how the field is changing and where it’s headed. Your own research interests can help change the way even very familiar texts get read in the classroom.

Caroline: Romanticism is such as broad, interdisciplinary field that it can feel overwhelming even thinking about where to start, so this is great advice. Thanks again for telling us about the course and your research.

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NGSC Statement Regarding NASSR-L Thu, 23 Nov 2017 19:03:16 +0000 Continue reading NGSC Statement Regarding NASSR-L ]]> Dear Fellow Graduate Students,

I am posting the following statement of behalf of the NASSR Graduate Student Caucus.

“The NASSR Graduate Caucus echoes the statements made by the NASSR Advisory Committee and Executive Board regarding what has been occurring on the NASSR-L and supports their decision to disaffiliate from the listserv. We are working towards creating a more collegial space, both online and offline, for the Romantic graduate community. If you have any suggestions, or would like to contact the co-chairs directly, please email Please also keep in touch via Facebook (NASSR Graduate Student Caucus), Twitter (@NASSRGrads), and the NGSC Blog (”

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Is The Author Dead In Your Classroom? Wed, 01 Nov 2017 14:12:06 +0000 Continue reading Is The Author Dead In Your Classroom? ]]> When an undergraduate professor assigned Roland Barthes and told me, “The Author Is Dead,”1 I heard with elation the clarion cry of burgeoning self-importance. I was no longer a measly high school student who naively derived literature’s meaning from the author’s personal psychology. No, no, I was a college student now and could refer to The Text as Ding an sich. In fact, by interpreting it, I was basically writing the darn thing! Reborn as a liberated reader, I ultimately heeded the call to become a literary critic myself.

In my first two years as a graduate student teaching at UCLA, I thoroughly enjoyed murdering the author for the benefit of my students (so I thought). I recognized the glow in many faces, which had once beamed from mine. I patted myself on the back for being (dare I say it?) like Wordsworth and Helen Vendler — “What we have loved, Others will love, and we will teach them how.”2 More importantly, the students who appeared most excited by the death of the author were the ones who produced the best papers. You know, papers that actually presented an original argument (not simply regurgitating what I said in lecture) grounded in extended analyses of formal literary devices. On the other end of the spectrum, a species of bad papers that I was particularly loath to receive were ones that Romantically psychologized the author to interpret his or her work. My least favorite: Byron’s personal fear of the dark explains the terror of “Darkness.” Ugh!

To crystallize the “good” practice of interpretation without heeding the author, I insisted students write about “the speaker” rather than the poet, and “the narrator” rather than the novelist. I thought I was training my students in an undisputed convention of our field….

Then I read John Farrell’s The Varieties of Authorial Intention: Literary Theory Beyond the Intentional Fallacy,3 which came out earlier this year. I hated to admit it, but I immediately recognized the need to reassess my teaching practices. 

I highly recommend you peruse The Varieties of Authorial Intention (and I promise you’ll actually enjoy reading the beautifully articulated, logically organized, and blessedly concise prose style). Farrell’s aim is to bring the author back into critical conversations. His main point is straightforward: it is the author’s intention that allows us to recognize a text as a work of art. “[T]o think of a literary work as a mere text,” argues Farrell, “is to neglect its impact and value as a human gesture made in a concrete historical situation toward a potentially identifiable audience.”4 Elegantly weaving between historicism and New Criticism,  Farrell is keen to emphasize “that a text’s need for intentional grounding does not mean that evidence about intentions outside the text of an utterance must play a key epistemic role in literary interpretation.”5 Besides the polemical claim for intentionality, the scintillating close readings of a vast array of texts (my favorites analyze Pride and Prejudice, Through the Looking Glass, and Emily Dickinson’s “Success is counted sweetest”) are the most impressive and delightful characteristic of this book.

Farrell differentiates the monolith of Authorial Intention into three varieties: communicative, artistic, and practical intent.

The author’s communicative intention is what exactly he or she means by the words and sentences in a work: “If the reader can understand the sentences of a literary work in their local context, the symbolic dimensions of the work, and what the point of the whole roughly seems to be, then the author’s communicative intentions have succeeded.”6 So, step one is recognizing that an author intentionally wrote words on a page to communicate something. Step two is understanding the language itself.

Only by comprehending the meaning of the words can we then assess the artistic intention, which refers to “the authors’ attempts to provide a valuable reading experience by creating literary effects—to move, amuse, perplex, inspire, instruct, or infuriate the reader using all means at hand—verbal skill, mastery of structure, imagery, metaphor, narrative forms and genres, or the flouting of any of these.”7 Evaluations of artistic intention, unlike communicative intention, do not succumb to the author’s authority. Even when we grasp the communicative intention, the artistic intention can fail. Think of it in this everyday scenario: someone tells a joke and you understand the words (the communicative intention), but you just don’t find it funny. Although you recognize the joker’s artistic intention to be funny, you’re still not moved to laugh.   

Finally, practical intentions are what motivate the composition of a work: “to impress others, give them pleasure, earn a living, gain status, sexual opportunities, the power to influence opinion, change the world, or keep the world the same.”8 The key point here is that practical intentions do not change the meaning of a work. They might change our attitude toward it, but they do not changed the communicative intention.

I surely can’t do justice to the richly textured debates examined in The Varieties of Authorial Intention. But I hope this post motivates you to reconsider the role of the author in your teaching practice. Perhaps it will impact your research as well, but I think the classroom is where the author is consistently and most egregiously exterminated. How might we guide students to evaluate, or at least consider, the varieties of authorial intention, while still meticulously and incisively analyzing language and form like Farrell does?

Here’s the easy experiment I’m going to try in my own classroom. I’ll select a passage or a chapter from the reading and begin class by asking the students to write for a few minutes: What happened in this selection? Then explain that their responses (which are hopefully all similar) reflect the author’s communicative intention, and I’ll quickly explain what that is in a little more detail. Next, I’ll ask, “Ok, what’s the artistic intention of this selection, and, in your opinion, did the author succeed or fail?” I’ll optimistically envision that this opens up a ripe debate that draws our attention to the literary devices that make the text artistic (keep your fingers crossed for me). Finally, I’d conclude the exercise by giving a micro-lecture explaining the practical intention behind the work (like if we were reading Frankenstein, I would alert them to Mary Shelley’s 1831 preface about the scary story contest on that rainy night at Lake Geneva, in addition to, as Ellen Moers points out in Literary Women, her fraught experiences with childbirth9). Then I would ask, “How does this information affect your attitude toward the novel?” And follow up with, “How has the reception and representation of Frankenstein over the past two centuries impacted your attitude toward the original novel?”

At the very least, I think this practice of differentiating between the varieties of authorial intention in the classroom could reduce those bad biographical papers and help students to more critically analyze their biases towards a text based on its practical intentions and impact over time. Identifying artistic intentions can be the jumping off point for deeper conversations about the most important points of analysis in an undergraduate English class: form, structure, syntax, diction, imagery, metaphor, and all those other wonderful literary devices.

Please share your thoughts! Are you convinced (or, at least, interested) by the intentional argument? Have you tried this in your classroom?

[1] See Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill & Wang, 1977). 

[2] See Helen Vendler, “What We Have Loved, Others Will Love,” in Falling Into Theory, ed. David H. Richter (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000), 31.

[3] John Farrell, The Varieties of Authorial Intention: Literary Theory Beyond the Intentional Fallacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

[4] Farrell, 10.

[5] Farrell, 31.

[6] Farrell, 37.

[7] Farrell, 39.

[8] Farrell, 38.

[9] See Ellen Moers, Literary Women (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976).

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Don Juan and the “Cosmopolitics” of Seduction Mon, 23 Oct 2017 22:52:14 +0000 Continue reading Don Juan and the “Cosmopolitics” of Seduction ]]> What would Lord Byron say, I wonder. How might that quintessentially Romantic “man of affairs,” as Jerome McGann once delighted in punning,[1] respond to our current state of affairs? What would he say of our endlessly streaming 24-hour news cycle, or to our social media? We can never know, of course. But as a politics and news junkie, as well as a Romanticist, I love to speculate.

Byron is often thought to have lost his taste for politics after his unsuccessful appeal to Parliament in 1812 on behalf of the Luddites. And yet, his poetry, as well as his life (especially the end of his life), reflect a deep, if often ironic, investment in the political. So, I wonder. Would his Lordship greet today’s headlines with his signature scorn, mockery, and aristocratic disdain? Or would Byron recognize, as we all must, that our current vacillation between irony and indignation is among the worst symptoms of our political dysfunction? Would he still want, as many of us surely do, a hero? And would we have to resign ourselves, as he once did, to a hero we deserve, if not the one we need, in Don Juan? Sometimes, in my more fanciful moments, I like to think so.

While interloping at this week’s CSECS/NEASECS conference – the theme of which is “Cosmopolitanism/Cosmopolitanisms” – in Toronto, I have been thinking about the legacies of Enlightenment Cosmopolitanism, especially as they continue to impact our current political climate. As many of the speakers have observed, there are striking resemblances between the turn of the nineteenth century in Britain and our own historical moment, particularly in terms of how cosmopolitanism, understood largely in a Kantian sense, seems to have fallen out of favour. At the usual risks of reduction, simplification, and erasure, let us briefly consider the parallels. Post-Waterloo Britain witnessed a reactionary conservatism that extolled inward-turning forms of nationalism against the perceived failures of the Enlightenment’s outward embrace of a trans-national, trans-historical consciousness. Now, we too are witnessing a rise in nationalist – even jingoistic – political movements (think “Brexit,” Trump, the rise of Poland’s Law and Justice Party, etc.) in response to decades of globalization and strides toward a pluralist, multi-cultural, and multi-ethnic consensus. As The Economist recently put it, when seen from a global perspective, the divide is no longer properly between “left” and “right,” but rather between “open” and “closed” to the world.[2] Where this phenomenon has been most striking, however, is in the extreme political polarization and anxiety it has produced, especially in my home country of the United States: the utter breakdown of bipartisanship in the legislative process serving only to underscore the deep fissures in American political discourse.[3] Campus politics themselves have not been immune. Indeed, these seem to have devolved along similar lines into mere shouting matches.[4] Surely, somewhere between a long-discarded empathy, and this current mode of bellicosity, there is a better political way forward.

And so, that famous opening line of Byron’s Don Juan – “I want a hero” – would seem to be more resonant now than ever.[5] Whether we are willing to admit it or not, we are in dire need of a political palliative, if not a panacea, to the current situation. And who better in this indecorous age of “post-truth” politics and “fake news” than the “true one,” himself? In addition to Don Juan’s celebration of an embattled cosmopolitanism, its propounding of what I am suggesting are a “politics of seduction” also seem to make its eponymous hero more than suitable for our troubled times. Both of these – the poem’s cosmopolitics, as well as its politics of seduction – I think are integrally related. We might, in fact, link them in Don Juan as a “cosmopolitics of seduction,” a notion I want to flirt with in this post, as one that resides between a discarded empathy and hopeless belligerency, and one that may yet be capable in our current moment of alluring and enticing us, attracting and enchanting us, away from, and even beyond, parochial prejudices, myopic attachments, and entrenched positions.

While the scholarly jury is still out in terms of who is seducing whom in Byron’s poem, there is little question that Juan’s world tour is driven by seduction. As Kirsten Daly argues, “in the poem, the citizen of the world becomes a man of the world whose survey is conducted in the realm of the flesh; knowledge is thus reconstituted as a form of sexual curiosity and spirit is metamorphosed into matter.”[6] Most important is how seduction functions politically in each of Juan’s encounters. Juan’s dalliances are framed “as a series of delicate negotiations with complex and diverse feminine systems whereby [Juan] comes to function as sexual diplomat or ‘diplomatic sinner’ who manoeuvres himself through a minefield of different codes” (XI, 230).[7] As Caroline Franklin suggests further, “the women in Don Juan are subtly drawn so as to embody the particular customs, institutions and laws of their [respective] countr[ies]: Haidee stands in for primitive democracy; Gulbeyaz for despotism; Catherine for enlightened despotism; and Adeline for limited monarchy.”[8]

Juan’s traversing such disparate “minefields” of political and sexual nuance across Europe begs the question of what gives him, “like Alcibiades,” – another political and sexual cosmopolite of antiquity – “the art of living in all climes with ease” (XV, 88–87). For that, we may finally have recourse to the poem, itself:

His manner was perhaps the more seductive,

Because he ne’er seem’d anxious to seduce:

Nothing affected, studied, or constructive

Of coxcombry or conquest; no abuse

Of his attractions marr’d the fair perspective,

To indicate a Cupidon broke loose,

And seem to say, “Resist us if you can”––

Which makes a dandy while it spoils a man.


They are wrong––that’s not the way to set about it.

As, if they told the truth, could well be shown.

But, right or wrong, Don Juan was without it;

In fact, his manner was his own alone;

Sincere he was––at least you could not doubt it,

In listening merely to his voice’s tone.

The devil hath not in all his quiver’s choice

An arrow for the heart like a sweet voice. (XV, 89–104)


As these lines intimate, rather than rely on the traditional seducer’s wily charms, vain conceits, or false promises, Juan’s seductive appeal derives solely from the “sincerity” and “sweetness” of his voice. The poem further explains that such a voice neither betrays “a struggle for priority,” nor “claim’d superiority,” an important distinguisher from Don Juan’s more misogynist and chauvinist predecessors in Spanish legend (XV, 119–20). Readers of Don Juan will rightly point out that Juan’s seductiveness is also enabled by his mobilité, which Byron’s note defines in part as a certain “susceptibility,” or receptiveness, to immediate impressions (see note to XVI, 820). Yet, if a “sweet voice” and an openness to experience seem to offer up a rather passive, flaccid model of seduction, then we should ask how, of all attributes, this is what allows Juan to successfully negotiate the cosmopolitan array of social, cultural, gender, and political codes of each country to the point of climax: “Though differing in stature and degree, / And clime and time, and country and complexion; / They all alike admired their new connexion” (VI, 318–20).[9]

We may explain Juan’s political as well as his sexual successes by reading his “sweet voice” as one with more than just a pleasing pitch. As an arrow in the Devil’s – not Cupid’s – quiver, Juan’s “sweet voice” is weaponized as a diabolical form of seduction, invoking a longstanding association between the powers of speech, persuasion, and politics. Since antiquity, the first theorizations of rhetoric and the art of persuasion were seen as central to the practice of politics. As a contemporary of Plato’s, it was Gorgias (c. 485 – c. 380), in his Encomium of Helen, who went one further, conceptualizing politics as not just persuasion, but seduction.[10] In its baser forms, political seduction has inspired the popular conflation of sex and politics in the image of the “sleazy” politician, or in the idea of political “prostitution.” It is also likely what earned the Sophists (Gorgias’ school of rhetoric) a bad name. But in Classical antiquity, when simple persuasion failed, it was the mark of a certain political finesse – more skillful than shouting down your opponent, and less weak than begging for their sympathy – to rhetorically seduce the opposition into betraying their original moral, philosophical, ideological, or political commitments. By constructing arguments that do not lazily rest on a presumed moral or tautological self-evidence, but rather engage in the rigorous practice of reorienting the opposition’s moral or ideological framework, one could, in theory, offer a rhetorical position that was wholly irresistible.

Since that time, of course, the West has grown less easy with the notion of political seduction. While it has been taken up by such diverse thinkers as Ovid, Rabelais, and Baudrillard, in many instances, seduction has become too closely associated with treason, bribery, corruption, or dogma; in others, it connotes too much of rape and violence; while, culturally, we have collectively absorbed the morals of Pandora’s box, of Eve in the Garden, of Gawain and the Green Knight, of Dr. Faustus in his study, and a seeming endless stream of Victorian melodrama in which the villain almost always features as a seducer.

And yet, as Kenneth Minogue claims, “seduction [remains] a central, indeed in certain respects, the central, idea, in political life,” and further, that “the very attempt to seduce may well be seen today as a virtuous act in its own right, opening up possibilities of choice that ought to be frankly discussed and explored.”[11] At its essence, seduction induces a fundamental moral revaluation, to make the betrayal of a commitment seem like something different. It is to introduce an alternative ethics that opens up the possibility of choice. Shakespeare’s representation of the assassination plot against Caesar highlights the ambiguity of political seduction. As Cassius observes, “None so strong that cannot be seduced.” He then wins Brutus over partly by the persuasiveness of his argument, but also by feigning the existence of a public opinion demanding that Brutus move against Caesar.[12] Political loyalties are thus abandoned in favour of a higher moral idea: civic responsibility to the people. That seduction could operate on moral high grounds was recognized by no less than Milton, who once reflected on Eve’s seduction in Paradise Lost that he could never praise a “cloistered virtue.” And finally, as Minogue points out, it was the Romantic period that ushered in the technique of mass political seduction when nationalists juxtaposed the abstract principle of cultural essence against inherited legitimacies, calling into question Irish loyalty to the British crown, the Czech to Austria Hungary, the Sicilian to his Bourbon oppressor, or the Basque to remote capitals in Spain and France. Remaining “faithful” to inherited political loyalties was thus construed as the “real” form of cultural betrayal.[13] Small wonder, then, that Byron’s conservative critics took such issue with Don Juan. In promoting a kind of politics of seduction against local, national allegiances to crown and country, critics were quick to conflate the poem’s licentiousness with its tendency toward sedition.

Still, Don Juan’s backward glance toward the eighteenth century, as well as its astonishing “anti-Romantic” turn, suggest that its moral commitments lie with an earlier Enlightenment ideal of globalism, as well as with a broader category of humanity, than the current model of nationalism would permit. This is why, in spite of Juan’s many affairs, he remains as “true,” as the poem remains faithful to its cosmopolitan commitments. And if Juan seduces, well, it is only so that we might be introduced to the romance of the world, in all its multiplicity, totality, and humanity.

What would Byron have said about today? I imagine probably the same thing he said of the nineteenth century. As the self-professed enemy “Of every despotism in every nation,” he would, no doubt, still “wish men to be free / As much from mobs and kings – from you as me” (IX, 192–200). From Don Juan’s cosmopolitics of seduction, we might do well in our current time to rediscover a politics that works more by rhetoric than wrath. A politics that can command the art of persuasion in the rhetorical corollaries of a stolen glance, a soft caress, a sighing breast, and a shivering heart, might do more to liberate us from our current political entrenchment than any current alternative. To entice those “closed” to the world to be more “open” will require a great deal more than attacking their supposed “backwardness.” To entreat our opponents, to capture their hearts, from left or right, or from whatever sect or creed, by way of “undressing” their pretensions to provincial concerns and particular interests, and by opening ourselves to the same, we may yet achieve a far more satisfying resolution to our current state of affairs.



[1] See Jerome J. McGann, Introduction to Lord Byron: The Major Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, 2008), xi.

[2] See “The New Political Divide,” The Economist. 30 July 2016.

[3] See Niraj Chokshi, “U.S. Partisanship Highest in Decades, Pew Study Finds,” The New York Times. 23 June 2016.

[4] See Kelly Oliver, “Education in the Age of Outrage,” The New York Times. 16 October 2017.

[5] Lord Byron: The Complete Poetical Works, ed. by Jerome J. McGann, 7 vols (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1980–1993). All references to Don Juan are given in parentheses, with canto and line number(s).

[6] Kirsten Daly, “Worlds Beyond England: Don Juan and the Legacy of Enlightenment Cosmopolitanism,” Romanticism 4.2 (1998), 192.

[7] Daly, 192.

[8] Caroline Franklin, Byron’s Heroines (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992). Qtd. in Daly, 192.

[9] My emphasis.

[10] See Robert Wardy, The Birth of Rhetoric: Gorgias, Plato and their Successors (New York: Routledge, 1996).

[11] Kenneth Minogue, “Seduction & Politics,” The New Criterion (November 2006), 17, 22.

[12] Minogue, 19.

[13] Minogue, 20.

You Are More Than Just A Graduate Student: Some Thoughts About That Elusive “Work-Life Balance” Fri, 13 Oct 2017 20:49:56 +0000 Continue reading You Are More Than Just A Graduate Student: Some Thoughts About That Elusive “Work-Life Balance” ]]> Upon suffering a concussion, I found myself in the hospital and attempted to convince the nurse that I was perfectly alright by holding up the copy of Pride and Prejudice that was in my bag and reciting dramatically, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Apparently, recitation of dear Jane is not evidence of a functioning brain (I had a grade two concussion after all). But the point is that even during a moderately traumatic event, literature was one of the first things to pop into my addled head.

We are in this profession because we love it. Even when juggling teaching, research, and service to the college; even upon receiving a disheartening reader’s report; even when the structure of your paper is in shambles and you’ve lost sight of the argument…. at the end of the day, we love literature.

That love is one of the greatest benefits of pursuing an advanced degree in English, but by the same token, it’s also one of the greatest hindrances to the well being of grad students. We are so eager to be here and to prove ourselves worthy. Our brains are bubbling over with ideas and anxieties, which keep us thinking and working around the clock. Not only do our own insecurities push us on, but distressing job market statistics create pressure to go above and beyond in cultivating a CV.

I’m not against working hard or striving for excellence, nor do I think we should turn down the natural love that keeps us thinking about a beloved book at two in the morning. But, I do want to make a case for loving something else too. And, gasp, sacrificing some scholarly time to cultivate extracurricular skills and relationships.

I joined the Los Angeles Triathlon Club in my first year of graduate school. Originally, I trained for a triathlon to help me cope with the stress of school. But somewhere along the way I fell in love with the sport for its own sake. Most surprising of all, I realized I was good at it! I wasn’t just a walking brain anymore, but had a body that could do something impressive too. That felt really good. So when things weren’t going well at school (you know, feeling inferior to the other geniuses in my cohort or receiving harsh criticism on a draft I thought was pretty good) I took pride in my achievements in swimming, biking, and running. On the other hand, if an injury prevented me from training or I didn’t perform as well as I’d hoped in a race, then I could always pat myself on the back and say, “Hey, that’s ok! Go re-read Frankenstein.”

Also, having friends outside of academia is indispensable. Don’t get me wrong, I adore my cohort and fellow graduate students and deeply value their support and intellectual vivacity. But, it’s also really nice to talk with people who might confuse Lord Byron for a Game of Thrones character and always use words of which you’re 100% certain of the definition. There’s a different dynamic that occurs when you interact with someone just as a friend and not a friend/colleague, which is what your relationships are at the university. It is so relaxing and so pleasurable to just have fun and not worry about being smart.

Without question, I can say that triathlon has made me physically and mentally healthier and a more successful graduate student. It’s given me confidence and joy that provides a necessary grounding when school is difficult. Perhaps I’m a Romantic Romanticist, but I really do think that mental health and professional success are founded on love. At the start of a new academic year, it’s worth reconnecting with what you love about literature and to develop other loves in your personal life with activities, friends, and family. Cherish your personal time, just like your favorite novel.

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Interview with Atesede Makonnen Tue, 03 Oct 2017 22:21:46 +0000 Continue reading Interview with Atesede Makonnen ]]>  

Atesede Makonnen is the winner of the 2017 NASSR Graduate Student Paper Prize. She is starting her second year as an English PhD student at Johns Hopkins University (MA in Shakespeare Studies, King’s College London, BA, Dartmouth College). Her research examines performance and race. Her winning paper will be published in the conference issue of European Romantic Review.

Sede, you were awarded the Graduate Student Paper Prize at the NASSR 2017 conference in Ottawa. Congratulations! Could you tell me about your paper?
Thank you so much! The paper looks at a particular moment in the stage history of Othello when the titular character’s race had to be re-imagined due to the social climate. Racialized philosophy and science, British abolition, slave revolts, looming integration – during all of this, a black Othello became problematic, specifically because of his affective power.

What inspired you to write this? Where did the idea come from?Last year, I happened to take two classes in one semester that dovetailed perfectly – Professor Mary Favret’s “Romanticism and the Ends of Affect” and Professor Mark Christian Thompson’s “The Enlightenment, Aesthetics and Race.” I ended up thinking about towering philosophical figures like Kant, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke from two perspectives. Shakespeare is always in the back of my mind – during my MA, I wrote a paper on the editing of Othello which first introduced me to Coleridge’s thinking on race and Edmund Kean’s 1814 debut of a ‘tawny’ Moor. I became interested in how the aesthetics of race crossed over with affect around the figure of Othello and blackness as a whole in Romantic life.

What are some of your other research interests? How does this paper fit into your larger research project/thesis?
This paper is a starting point for me into a hopefully larger project continuing to think about race on the romantic stage and what it meant and continues to mean for theatrical history (and beyond). The next step is looking at illustrations of Edmund Kean and portraiture of Ira Aldridge. I’ve been thinking about race, specifically blackness, in the media quite a bit. I’m working on a paper about the Oscars and another on whitewashing.

How was your overall experience at the conference? Which was your favourite panel?
It was good and very informative! I met many excellent scholars and very kind people. My favorite panel was probably “The Politics of Life” – Deanna Koretsky’s paper “Impossible Life: Equiano’s Black Ecology” was great.

Did you find time to get away from the conference and explore the city during your stay in Ottawa?
I have to admit, pre-panel nerves meant I spent quite a while staring at my paper and powerpoint and less time exploring. However, it was my first trip to Canada and I did make sure to explore at least a little bit – I tried a beaver tail, walked past Parliament, and took lots of pictures!

Finally, do you have any tips for other grad students about writing successful conference papers?
Let go. I had the hardest time selecting what I would and wouldn’t include in this paper. I was really stubborn about accepting that it had to get cut down – in the end, I think it was really good for my thought process to streamline what was most important.

Congratulations again, Sede, and thank you for telling us about your research. I’m looking forward to reading your paper in ERR!

BARS 2017: Romantic Improvement Recap Mon, 25 Sep 2017 21:04:28 +0000 Continue reading BARS 2017: Romantic Improvement Recap ]]> For this week’s blog post I thought I’d give a recap of our friends at BARS’s annual conference this past July. The theme of the 15th International Conference was “Romantic Improvement,” and was hosted at the gorgeous King’s Manor in York, July 27-30th. Plenary speakers included Catherine Hall, Jane Rendall, Nigel Leask, and Jon Klancher.

The conference boasted a wide variety of panels and topics, including travel narratives, ecocriticism, print culture, biography and life-writing, networks, the laboring class, and theatricality. The usual Romantic authors were represented in standalone/paired up panels, such as Coleridge and Wordsworth, while others were excitingly elevated to single-panel fame, such as Hester Thrale Piozzi. As someone who works on Romantic female novelists, I was pleased to see an almost equal number of panels dedicated to women writers (Austen, Burney, Mary Shelley, Wollstonecraft, Hester Thrale Piozzi) as to male authors (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Scott, Galt, Hogg, Byron, Keats, Blake). There was, however, a lack of representation of Romantic female poets in single-author panels—where was the L.E.L panel? The Hemans panel? The Seward panel? This is no one’s fault, though I think it does point to a field-wide trend to study male poets and female novelists–but the incredible work currently being done on Romantic female poets will soon change that.

There was a lot of buzz surrounding certain panels, particularly an entire panel devoted to the Lady’s Magazine. But I don’t think anything could top the overwhelming excitement for the final day’s “David Bowie as Romantic Improvement.”

The lovely conference venue–fit for Romantic Royalty!

King’s Manor was a gorgeous venue for the conference, and you can’t ask for a more stunning backdrop than York, even if it was rainy and folks had a very soggy walk back from the postgraduate social in the Fossgate. The conference was superbly organized (did I mention you got 20% off the ice cream cart in the square as a delegate? Discounted! Ice cream!) and I felt very welcomed as a graduate student.

At the opening night Wine Reception we were treated to two performances by Le Strange & Maxim entitled “Lyrical (Power) Ballads” and “Now That’s What I Call Coleridge! 1983.” While initially being very confused (having come in halfway through and not had quite enough wine), I was soon laughing hysterically at their mash-ups of Romantic poems and 80s power ballads, with appearances by Kubla Klan, Brexit, Christabel, and more.

Maxim & Le Strange performed Lyrical (Power) Ballads at the wine reception. Photo by @bars_official

The conference was warm, collegial, and full of brilliant, kind graduate students. I made a lot of new friends that weekend, particularly on the trip to Castle Howard excursion. Do you know how nice it is to be surrounded by people who get your jokes about Lorrain paintings and ha-has? Of course you do. As is the point of such conferences, it was really wonderful to get so many Romanticists together in one room (or in one castle, in this case).

The magnificent Castle Howard–one of BARS 2017’s excursions

There’s so much more to be said about this wonderful conference, but I’ll end by saying I heartily recommend it to any NASSR grads who find themselves across the pond in 2019. BARS also hosts a Postgraduate and Early Career Conference, and is a fantastic resource for all Romanticists. Many thanks to Mary Fairclough, Jon Mee, Deborah Russell, Jim Watt, and Joanna Wharton, the conference organizers. I will surely return.

A New Year of Blogging! Tue, 05 Sep 2017 19:40:27 +0000 Welcome, readers, to a new year of blogging from the NASSR Graduate Student Caucus!

We have an exciting year planned, with some returning bloggers and some new, as well as a number of guest posts. Be sure to check here often for new content and to keep in touch via social media.